New Orleans Saints

Tom Benson settles lawsuit with family over Saints, Pelicans shares

BILL HABER/AP 
 New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson and his wife Gayle Benson wave to the crowd before the start of the New Orleans Saints-New York Jets NFL football game in New Orleans, Sunday, Oct. 4, 2009.
BILL HABER/AP New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson and his wife Gayle Benson wave to the crowd before the start of the New Orleans Saints-New York Jets NFL football game in New Orleans, Sunday, Oct. 4, 2009. AP

The parties in Tom Benson's federal lawsuit over shares in the Saints and Pelicans have reached a settlement, an agreement that wraps up the last, unresolved piece of litigation pertaining to a complex legal battle that pitted Benson against his own family.

The Saints released a statement Friday saying the terms of the deal will remain confidential.

The lawsuit in question saw Benson oppose the officials in charge of trust funds benefitting his estranged relatives, and it was supposed to go to trial Monday.

Benson had been trying to remove shares in the teams as well as other business assets from those funds. But there was a disagreement over whether Benson had provided assets of equivalent value in return, as he was legally required to do.

The case has its roots in a family rift that became public early last year, when Benson, now 88, revealed that he wanted to eventually bestow control of his billion-dollar business empire to his wife, Gayle, instead of his daughter and her children, with whom he said he was no longer on speaking terms.

But Benson by then had already put nonvoting shares in the Saints and Pelicans, among other business assets, into various trust funds for Renee Benson -- his daughter from a previous marriage -- and her children, Ryan and Rita LeBlanc, a move that was meant to protect his relatives from paying estate taxes.

Now, he is seeking to reclaim the business assets at the center of the case to avoid a situation where his estranged relatives would one day end up as his wife's minority shareholding partners, according to court records.

To accomplish that, Benson is required to swap out those shares with assets of equivalent value. His attorneys argue that he has done that by canceling tens of millions of dollars worth of debt and handing roughly a half-billion dollars' worth of promissory notes due in about 25 years.

However, officials overseeing the trust funds involved have consistently denied that Benson has provided equal value. That disagreement resulted in the lawsuit pending before Milazzo, pitting Benson against the trust fund officials.

Earlier this month, in somewhat of a split ruling, Milazzo denied a request from Benson's opponents to rule in their favor without listening to witness testimony and oral arguments, which are expected to last about five days if a trial ever happens.

At the same time, Milazzo shot down a request from Benson's attorneys to seal numerous pieces of evidence that could be used at the trial. Benson contended that allowing personal and professional financial information to be aired in public could harm his business dealings, along with those of his sports teams and the leagues to which they belong.

The trust funds' stewards successfully countered that granting such a request would force Milazzo to bar the public from entering the courtroom for large portions of the trial, in the process violating citizens' right to access court proceedings.

The family feud has also seen Benson's relatives challenge his mental fitness to veer away from the succession plans that would have seen them inherit the reins to their patriarch's fortune upon his death. But a New Orleans civil court judge found Benson was mentally competent to handle his own affairs after a closed-door trial, and two higher courts have left that ruling in place.

On another front of the legal battle, Benson and Renee earlier this year agreed that she would take over control of a family trust fund established in Texas before he purchased New Orleans' NFL and NBA teams.

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